Like a lot of woodworkers, I’ve cut dovetails all sorts of ways, slowly by hand with a saw and chisel and a bit quicker by machine with an angled saw blade and a dado set. Till now I’ve thought of dovetail jigs as a compromise: offering quick but clunky-looking results, due to a big fat router bit making the cuts. Also, I had heard they have steep learning curves with lots of fussing. Turns out I was wrong on both counts.
I just finished a big review of dovetail jigs for the next issue of Fine Woodworking magazine, and I’m here to say that the best are really amazing. I can’t give away the winners, but I can show you how these things work, and basically why they are so awesome.
Next week, I’ll show you a cool project you can build with your new dovetail jig, or any dovetail method for that matter.
So as most of you know, there are two basic kinds of dovetails, through-dovetails and half-blind dovetails (used often for drawer fronts, as you can only see the dovetails on one side of the joint). These jigs can cut both in a variety of ways. And thanks to skinnier router bits and variable spacing, the joints they make look very close to hand-cut. In fact, only the purists will know the difference.
What you get in return though is a much faster, more foolproof process. If you’ve ever struggled to make this demanding joint, or been too intimidated to try, a dovetail jig is for you. Here’s how they work, and some of the many advantages.
It starts with how easy they are to set up and use. For a start, they all use a template with fingers on it to guide a bushing that attaches to the bottom of your router base, like this:
Let’s say you are going to cut through-dovetails. You always cut these one part at a time on a dovetail jig, first the tails with a dovetail-shaped bit and then the pins board with a straight bit. Both boards attach to the jig vertically.
Half-blind dovetails are different. What’s cool here is that you load both sides of the joint in the jig at once and cut everything in one pass, with a single bit and a single setup.
This is just a small taste of what these jigs can do. For the whole story, plus great jigs for every budget, pick up the July/August issue of Fine Woodworking, on newsstands in early June.
I worked with an expert welder for an upcoming article for Woodcraft magazine, titled, “Welding for Woodworkers.” And that’s what I covered in my first blog. Now my part kicks in: adding a wood top to our steel frame, along with some finishing touches for the overall table.
Just as I thought, dealing with metal is simple compared to wood. Abrasive pads remove the last traces of high heat, plus any scratches, and a coat of paste wax is all the finish you need, evening out the sheen and providing a bit of protection from finger grease and corrosion. There are awesome plugs that you just bang down into the ends of the steel-tube legs with a rubber mallet, and they come threaded for adjustable feet.
As for adding a wood top, that’s woodworking, and takes a bit more time. I went with Port Orford cedar, a hard cedar that grows only in the Pacific Northwest. It’s got nice organic character that goes well with the steel below.
I milled up two thick pieces to make a 1-1/2-in.-thick top, to match the thickness of the steel frame parts. Than I added a little rabbet around the bottom edge to create a thin shadow line that separates wood and steel.
After prepping the surfaces, putting a nice roundover on all the edges, and adding a few coats of polyurethane, attaching the wood top was a breeze. Kari Merkl had already drilled holes through the upper frame pieces before welding the frame together, so now I just drove long screws through those into the top. The cedar is pretty stable but there is enough wiggle room in the screw holes to allow for any seasonal wood movement.
That’s it, a mixed-media table in the modern style! For the whole story, including a variety of different pieces made with similar techniques, see my upcoming article in Woodcraft magazine.
I’ve been spending time with a local welder, Kari Merkl, working on an article for Woodcraft magazine, called “Welding for Woodworkers,” and I’m psyched to see how easy and affordable it is to get into the craft. Today’s small, user-friendly welders can join all sorts of steel parts, and then who knows what you might build: sleek furniture, junkyard sculpture, a tiny house or a tricked-out trailer.
I haven’t welded anything since a brief intro back in trade school 30 years ago, but I’ve always wanted to add welding to my arsenal. So I jumped at the chance to find a local expert and see what it takes to get started. Kari has been welding professionally for 16 years and teaching for 6, which makes her uniquely suited to break it down for beginners like me.
Watch Woodcraft mag for the full story, but here’s a taste of how easy and fun welding can be. I’ll do the basics first, then talk about adding wood parts in a later post. But keep following this blog because I plan to get my own rig and start building stuff with steel. If you’ve already beat me to it, let me know!
So welder first. You’ll be welding mild steel, specifically “cold-rolled,” which comes in lots of tubes and shapes with good dimensional accuracy and a nice, smooth finish. Other metals are harder to held and more of a next-level thing. But mild steel can do a ton of stuff, and be painted, power-coated or just protected with wax.
So for mild steel, MIG welding is the answer, at least for most of you. It’s the best combo of affordability, portability, affordability, and short learning curve. MIG stands for Metal Inert Gas, which just means the welding gun directs a stream of argon gas (with some CO2) into the welding zone to shield it from impurities in the air. Makes for much cleaner welds. But MIG is just a form of wire-fed arc welding, in which the work is grounded and then the welding wire touches the work, completing the circuit and instantly heating the wire and surrounding steel into a molten state, so it can bond together in a little puddle.
So there is a simpler wire-fed method, which forgoes the gas for flux instead. The flux is in the core of the welding wire, and creates a little shielding plume when heated. The weld isn’t quite as clean as MIG can do, but it’s still very effective.
Bottom line, you can get a gasless wire-feed welder for under $300 and for another $150 or so you can have a unit that does MIG, too! Here’s a great one that does both, from a very reputable company, Hobart.
Voltage and the feed rate are controlled separately, as they should be, and the unit comes with the spool gun (with a few extra tips), some flux-core wire, and the grounding clamp–everything you need for flux-core-wire welding. If you add the tank of argon gas at some point, you can do MIG.
You will also need to prep your shop environment. If you can’t work in a separate room with nothing flammable for about 12 feet in every direction, you can shield the welding area with plastic welding curtains, as Kari is doing here:
You’ll also notice the grounding clamp attached to a steel table, which in turn electrifies the workpieces being welded. You can also attach the clamp to the parts themselves, if you are welding on a concrete floor for example, or just put a steel plate atop your woodworking bench. The solid wood is spark proof too, but be sure there is no sawdust in sight or anything flammable, including open trash cans. And hang up those shielding curtains where needed!
You’ll also need some safety gear, like Kari has on, all thick cotton or leather, with a welding helmet.
Other than some practice and basic know-how, this is all that stands between you and welding! OK, you do need some way to cut metal, and your woodworking tools won’t work. Your wood-cutting bandsaw is way to fast for metal. So you’ll need a small metal cutoff saw (just over $100) or a horizontal bandsaw ($300-$400 new) designed for cutting metal.
Now to the basic technique. First of all, welding introduces tension and a lot of heat, so you need to distribute that heat and tension as you go or you will distort the assembly you are …assembling.
Basically, you get the parts squared up and clamped in place (there are cool welding clamps of this, or you can use any steel-jawed woodworking clamps) and then you first just make small tack welds at all the joints, moving systematically sound the assembly. Then you return to point A to make full welds. This balances the forces as you go, and lets the heat dissipate in each spot before you return.
As for technique, it’s best to take a class and do lots of practice but here are the basics: you cut off the wire at about 1/4 in. away from the tip of the gun, tilt the gun about 60 degrees to the surface and pull it along ahead of the weld, trying to keep the tip of the gun about 1/8 in. off the surface. The tilted gun lets you see the weld area as you work.
You also need to swirl the tip of the gun as you go to create a wide, strong bead. Welding is a dance of sorts, between voltage, wire feed rate, and your own motion, as you move the molten puddle down the weld, and that dance takes practice. But you can do it!
Kari says the hardest part for beginners is learning to see the entire weld as you work, training your brain to see a bigger circle through the lens in the white light, and also just getting comfortable with the sparks, sound, and light. But she gets beginners to nirvana all the time, so you can do it too.
After spending a couple days shooting photos at her studio, I’m positive I can weld. Still I’m going to one of her classes this weekend to try it for real.
Stay tuned for part two, where I show some of the finishing touches to a welded frame, and how to add wood to it to make a nice coffee table.
The traditional way to add legs to a table is first to connect the tops of legs to a series of rails, creating a separate base. The top then attaches to that. That type of base demands high-skill joints like mortises and tenons to connect everything. Lucky for us, there are much easier answers these days.
A variety of companies now sell self-supporting legs that simply screw onto any top you have, be it a wood slab, butcher block, old door, old workbench top or whatever. In my book for beginners, “Build Stuff with Wood,” due out next fall, I show four of these leg systems. Here they are, attached to a variety of tops.
You can imagine the rest of the possibilities, I’m sure. By the way, to find out how I surfaced and finished the beautiful walnut slab that I used for two of these tables, go here.
I spent part of last week in nearby Oregon City, shooting photos of the PantoRouter, helping its U.S. distributor get the word out about this wonderful new joint-making machine. Based on the pantograph principle, which transfers a pattern and changes its scale, the current version of the PantoRouter began as a DIY project in a Canadian woodshop and ended up as a collaboration between passionate people in three countries. The result is the fully-featured commercial product you see here.
Mathias Wandel developed the first PantoRouter, offering plans and creating a YouTube channel that went viral (not Kardashian-level viral, but woodworking scale). The project attracted the attention of Kuldeep Singh, an Indian guy who happens to live in Kyoto, Japan, and signed on to develop a commercial version. That’s where my new Oregon friend Mac Sheldon came in, collaborating on the final details and then marketing and distributing the product here in North America. Sheldon continues to add templates and capabilities as he learns what woodworkers want most from the PantoRouter.
Without the deep pockets of a big tool company, it’s a labor of love to bring a machine like this to market, and I’m really happy these three guys persevered. I’m also happy to have met Mac at my local woodworking guild.
I’ve seen all the joint-making machines out there. For example, I edited and shot a full tool test of all sorts of mortising machines l when I was at Fine Woodworking. After working with the PantoRouter for two days, I’m pretty blown away.
The key is the mortise-and-tenon templates, which come with the basic package. The pointer on the PantoRouter, actually a small bearing, first rides the inside of the template to make the mortise, with zero wiggle room, and then rides the outside to form a perfectly matching tenon. With various bearing and bit combos, you can make matching joints of almost any thickness.
Not to get too deep here, but because the ratio of movement between the guide bearing and cutter is 2-to-1, any inaccuracies are reduced by half. The only downside to the M&T templates is their fixed widths. Sheldon is working on templates that have variable width, but for now the templates only make M&Ts that are either 1-1/2 or 2-1/2 in. wide.
That said if you use the tapered pin (included) instead of the bearing guide, as shown below, running it in one of the slots on the aluminum extrusion, you can make mortises of all lengths and arrays, meaning you can crank out matching mortises for slip tenons. It works great!
There are more thoughtful features than I can cover here, but here are just four more great ones:
Mortises and tenons are far from all this machine can do. There are templates for excellent box joints, plus fixed and variably-spaced dovetails, all with the same foolproof bearing-guided system.
Like Wandel does for his DIY version, Sheldon makes all sorts of custom joint patterns (the ones for sale are in tough HDMW plastic), such as butterfly keys, S-curves, dog bones, and much more, which you can buy from the PantoRouter site . He accepts custom orders, too.
Best of all, the collaborators keep improving the machine. A while back they built tilt into the table for angled joints, and Sheldon recently developed a T-square fence that makes workpiece setup even quicker. Next up are those adjustable M&T templates I mentioned.
Not much new really happens in woodworking, and I have a feeling the PantoRouter will be making headlines for years to come. It’s about $1,500 for the package that includes everything you need to make M&Ts, box joints, and dovetails, including three top-quality Whiteside solid-carbide, up-spiral bits. All you need to add is a standard router motor. When you consider that the similar JDS MultiRouter is $3K and Festool’s larger Domino machine is over $1,000 and only does mortises, you see the value of the new machine.
Trust me when I say this machine makes great joints quickly and accurately. Click through some of the PantoRouter videos to be convinced. That and more, including various packages and accessories, are at the official website:
As editor of Fine Woodworking I saw thousands of woodworking tools and gizmos come and go, but a few stand out as must-haves for any aspiring woodworker. Together they form an awesome holiday gift guide. Treat yourself, or treat a friend.
Each of these tools is not only affordable but also guaranteed to take your craft to the next level. Now that’s value!
Here are my favorite holiday woodworking gifts, sure to bring a smile to the faces of young makers and old grizzled vets alike.
Protect your ears and eyes
There are tons of gizmos for this, but you simply must protect your ears and eyes from power tools. Eyes are obviously priceless, but a lot of people on’t know that hearing loss is cumulative. That means all those roaring tools and pounding hammers take their toll, and the damage simply adds up over the years. So you wake up in your 40s or 50s and realize you have a big problem.
Here are two of my favorite new devices for protecting eyes and ears. There are lots of glasses and goggles, and if your glasses are polycarbonate, you can probably get by with just those. But here is a new set of German goggles that will make you the envy of your local makerspace.
And finally, you can’t beat these high-tech earmuffs for comfort and convenience. They are not quite as effective as full earmuffs that sit on your head, but they will do the job for most power tools.
Called SensGard, they use a proprietary air chamber to muffle loud sounds but let in soft ones like voices. What I like is that they can just sit around your neck until you need them. There are ear plugs on headbands that do the same thing, but ear plugs are a pain to stick in your ears.
SensGard has small soft cups that are easy to place over your ear openings and comfortable to wear. When you want to hear your boom box again, you just drop the headband onto your neck.
While we are protecting eyes and ears, why not protect your lungs, too, for a safer 2017! For some outdated reason, a lot of tool makers still don’t provide dust ports that connect to standard hoses. That means you are stuck with that useless little canister they attach to tools. Not only do those not work, but for tools like sanders, they actually make the tool work worse because the wood dust gets in the way of the abrasive action.
Attach a shop vac to you sander and the paper starts lasting way longer and working way better, and better yet, the dust disappears instead of ending up all over the shop and down in the deepest regions of your lungs (wood dust is a carcinogen in big amounts BTW).
This ingenious adapter set is Rockler’s gift to the world, one of many clever problem-solvers you’ll find at Rockler.com. It fits all vac hoses and almost every tool in the shop, going on and off in a jiffy. I especially like it on my miter saw and sanders.
Greatest. Sanding. Block. Ever.
Everyone hates sanding but there is no more foolproof way to get surfaces buttery smooth and ready for a beautiful wood finish. Enter the “Preppin’ Weapon,” which is a steal at under $20 on Amazon. Born in the auto-body world, it grabs a long 1/4-sheet of sandpaper quickly and securely, and sits beautifully in your hand as it works its magic. The ergonomic shape, quick paper clamps, the spongy bottom, and the long, effective shape simply can’t be beat.
The work goes fast and the results are beautiful uniform as you work your way up through the grits to 220 or beyond. Combine it with my shopmade sandpaper slicing jig and take your sanding game to a ridiculous level!
Struggle with sharpening no more
Combined with almost any sort of sharpening stone, the Veritas Mark II honing guide will guarantee razor sharpness.
Traditional handplanes and chisels can be amazing weapons, but only if they are razor sharp. And the only reliable way I know to get there is to use a honing guide. And the best one I know BY FAR is the Veritas Mark II. Get the standard set.
This guide not only holds almost any woodworking blade perfectly, and also tools smooth and level. But best of all is the little setup guide that attaches to the front to set the honing angle. Check the top of this page for a video on how the setup guide works.
Trust me, you need one of these if you want to use hand tools. By the way, I would combine it with a coarse diamond plate or a bench grinder for forming the edge, and a set of waterstones in the 1,000. 4,000, and 8,000 grits for honing the secondary bevel. Grind at 25 degrees, hone at 30. That will work for almost every chisel and handplane you will ever buy.
Add machinist precision to your work
A lot of people take on traditional joinery and use only traditional tools to execute it. That is a mistake. I couldn’t live without my dial calipers, which you can get for a measly $22.50 (!!) from Grizzly.com. There are digital versions that can switch between fractions and decimals, but I like the simplicity of the decimal version. Once I’m working with thousandths of an inch, I don’t bother converting back to fractions usually.
Get the six-inch version of dial calipers, which is plenty big enough for woodworking tasks.
Want to know exactly how big something is, like a dado or screw and then size your shelf or drill bit to fit it? Grab the calipers. Planing a shelf to fit a dado, or a tenon to fit a mortise? Grab the calipers. Trying to plane a board to the thickness of some others? Having trouble reading those tiny numbers on the side of a drill bit? The answer is always the same.
They can take inside and outside measurements, and they read in .001 of a inch, which is more than enough for the finest woodworking. There is even a depth gauge on the end for reaching down into holes and mortises.
Why struggle with tiny ruler marks when you can know exactly what you are dealing with? Once you have one of these, you’ll be kicking yourself for not having one sooner.
Lie-Nielsen has all the block planes you’ll ever need
You may or may not ever use a big smoothing plane to prepare your wood surfaces for finishing, but you will darn well need these two block planes. Start with the a small standard block plane, like this one from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. This little $100 plane should be the beginning of any hand tool collection. It is beautiful and cuts wood like butter. And like all Lie-Nielsen tools, it comes tuned up for action. Just give the blade a light honing and go.
Edges, end grain, corners, whatever, this plane will handle it all. For starters, use it to break the sharp edges on all of your projects for a finished look and feel. You are a true craftsman now.
When you are ready to tackle real joinery, you’ll be making mortises and tenons. Make the mortises first, and plane the tenons to fit. You can shape the tenons however you like–tablesaw, bandsaw, handsaw–but leave them a little thick and then plane them for a piston fit with this rabbeting block plane, also from Lie-Nielsen.
Some folks use traditional shoulder planes for the job, but this plane is wider and helps me do most tenons in one pass. And it still trims the shoulders of the tenon even with each other.
The secret, and the reason it is called “rabbeting,” is that the blade extends all the way to the edge of the tool, meaning it can cut all the way into the corner of a rabbet, or trim the entire face of a tenon right up to the shoulder. A normal block plane won’t do that.
One of the things I love best about building things by hand is the problem-solving. If you know a few tricks, you can use a surprisingly small tool kit to build a staggering amount of stuff. When writing my book, Build Stuff with Wood (coming soon), which is aimed at true beginners, I challenged myself to work with just a few portable power tools. Each one will come in handy for all sorts of DIY and home-improvement for years to come. And all four of them will fit in the back of your Mini Cooper when you move to Brooklyn or Banff (best town name ever).
I made some amazing discoveries along the way. Like the incredibly smooth-cutting blades you can get for a small jigsaw, which will produce cuts that rival those of the biggest bandsaw. Then there is the simple cutting guide you can make for any circular saw. It’s normally a rough construction tool, but the guide turns it into a star, for super-straight cuts on plywood and big boards that look like they were done on a tablesaw.
The other must have is a cordless drill, but not just any cordless drill. You want an impact driver, a new type of drill that rattles loudly when the going gets tough, melting big screws into hard woods almost effortlessly. It can drill just as well.
I went over my $100 budget on the last must-have tool. It’s a miter saw. If you want to build things inside or outside your house or apartment, you’ll want one of these cutoff masters. I’ve used mine when building decks, laying flooring, and making woodwork projects of all kinds. A good one is $300 or so, but it is so worth it. It will make perfect 90-degree cuts (or any other angle) on the ends of boards in just a few seconds, with zero fuss or setup. Just walk up, drop the board in place, pull the trigger and pull the saw downward smoothly.
And the miter saw is portable, meaning it can easily go where it is needed, for projects away from your dedicated workspace. I just used mine to build an entire fence. Look for that blog soon!
To be honest, I’d also add a router, one just like this from DeWalt, which is small enough for easy control but tough enough for any task. Use it to put nice roundovers and bevels on your edges, and too many more cool moves to list here.
That’s everything, and you don’t have to buy it all at once. Buy tools as you need them, and buy the mid-grade at least. You’ll be much happier in the end. I’m showing them below in the order I would buy them, starting with the jigsaw and cordless drill.